CAIRO -- Tens of thousands of protesters poured into Tahrir Square on Tuesday night to contest what they believe is Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s illegal declaration that his decisions are exempt from judicial oversight, marking the largest protests ever against the newly elected president.
It was not clear Tuesday night whether the chants of thousands calling for a second revolution would lead Morsi to rescind, modify or wait out opponents to his 5-day-old constitutional declaration. Instead, it appeared the crowds, notably absent of the Islamists who are Morsi’s base, simply reflected an increasingly polarized electorate. Indeed, many who were protesting Tuesday said they boycotted the election that led to Morsi’s presidency or voted for his rival.
If Morsi sticks to his declaration, the feud over who has the final say over the nation’s judicial matters will come to a head Sunday when the courts are expected to make three key rulings. The courts will determine whether Morsi acted legally when he changed the temporary constitution in July to end military rule – leading to the firing of Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council – and giving Morsi final say over military matters, the first time a civilian has had such power in Egypt’s modern history; whether the assembly charged with crafting a permanent constitution is legal, since it was elected by the now-defunct Parliament, which the courts earlier ruled was illegally constituted; and whether the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament, should be dissolved.
If the courts rule against Morsi, it remains unclear whether Morsi’s decree or the judicial rulings would prevail – or who will decide that. In the meantime, several judges have suspended their work in protest.
Protesters charged Tuesday that Morsi only represents the interests of his base, his former party, the Muslim Brotherhood, the group largely responsible for Morsi’s narrow election victory. Opponents charge Morsi is trying to consolidate power on behalf of the Brotherhood. He was elected to represent all, they say, not just those who supported him.
Morsi’s declaration appeared to be a tipping point for an increasingly frustrated half of the country that wanted to see revolutionary change. Instead, critics say, much remains the same. Under the proposed permanent constitution, the military still controls an unchecked large segment of the economy and the government does not review the military’s budget, just as under the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Meanwhile, much sought after police reforms have yet to happen, and Morsi already gave himself legislative power after a court ruling found that Parliament had been wrongly elected.
On Monday, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said that Morsi’s decree applied to sovereign matters and that the judiciary was on board. Hours later, the judiciary council issued a statement saying it was still protesting the declaration.
The size of the crowds Tuesday rivaled the celebrations of Morsi’s June election and the lifetime sentence handed down to Mubarak for the deaths of protesters during the 2011 revolution. But the crowds were far smaller, and less representative, than during the 2011 revolution, during which protesters camped out in Tahrir Square for 18 days. Many Tuesday came out carrying the flags of political parties that ran against Morsi.
“We had a revolution for democracy, not for one person to rule like a dictator,” said Rami Sayed, 29, an accountant who boycotted the election that led to Morsi’s presidency, saying he believed it was rigged, as he marched toward Tahrir Square.
Morsi’s silence, as crowds kept arriving in Tahrir Square calling for the end of his “regime” and repeating the cries of the 2011 revolution, was deafening. At one point there were rumors that his vice president had resigned, leading to a brief denial by his office but no response to what was happening in the streets.
Morsi, in a speech before supporters Friday, said he issued the judicial declaration to expedite the writing of the permanent constitution and to rid the courts of Mubarak remnants. But many are suspicious, saying he is using the promise of reforms to grab power. And, opponents said, he wanted to get ahead of Sunday’s rulings.
The Muslim Brotherhood “wants to recreate the old despotism in a new way. They are not revolutionaries,” said Ashraf el Sherif, a political science lecturer at American University in Cairo. “He is saying the judiciary needs to be reformed. That’s true. But he’s doing it for the wrong reasons. He is trying to control them, not reform them. Control is not necessary for reforms.”
Protesters arrived to Tahrir Square from three different directions, often passing the graffiti put up celebrating the revolution nearly two years ago.
At times, protesters lit up the skies with fireworks, prompting one Egyptian to ask about the festivity: “Fireworks? Did he leave?”
Mustafa Suliman, a 39-year-old journalist, voted for Morsi because, as he explained, “I had no other option.” Three months later, he is fed up with a number of moves by Morsi – his decision to name himself the chief legislator, his unwillingness to encourage a more representative assembly tasked with writing a permanent constitution, and his insistence on only representing those who voted for him.
“Morsi was freely elected but the revolutionary spirit is not happy. We don’t feel any change except that the nation is divided between those who support the president and those who don’t,” Suliman said. “I want to see the president not only protest his own interests, but come out and unify the people. This divide is dangerous for more people than Morsi.”
Suliman wasn’t surprised that the crowds were not a full mosaic of the electorate. Referring to the members of the Brotherhood and other Islamists, Suliman said: “They don’t need to come out to the street. Morsi is reaching out to them.”
At the White House, the Obama administration appeared reticent to weigh in on the divide in Egypt. Press Secretary Jay Carney said the administration is "closely following what is obviously a still unfolding political situation." He said the administration has urged an "inclusive dialogue between the government of Egypt and all Egyptian stakeholders."
But he called it an "internal Egyptian situation that can only be resolved by the Egyptian people, through peaceful democratic dialogue," adding that the U.S. calls on Egyptians "exercising their right to freedom of expression to do so peacefully."
"Where we have concerns, we’ve raised them," Carney said. "But we also understand that this is an internal Egyptian process.”
The process, protesters said, is exactly the problem. Morsi, they charged, believes he only represents those who agree with him.
Morsi and his supporters “need to get the message. They are not living in Egypt alone,” el Sherif said. “The protests are a kind of check and balance by the streets.
Lesley Clark in Washington and McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail in Cairo contributed to this article.